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Africa Report


VOL.5 September 2013
Depending on a Diaspora
Somalia's rebirth relies greatly on the return of its many refugees
By Aggrey Mutambo

Mogadishu is on the mend and on the rise. A booming construction industry is building high-rise blocks that compete for skyline dominance, shops are opening up at a much faster rate than two years earlier and airlines are launching routes to what has hitherto been considered the world's most dangerous city.

Despite a rise in the number of ambushes, assassinations and suicide bombs in the city in August, a sign that Somali militant group Al-Shabaab has renewed its campaign to bring instability to the nation's capital, a sense of optimism still abounds as the country slowly makes its way back into the international arena. The United Kingdom has reopened its embassy after a 22-year closure, as have Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Refugees return

Apart from a resurgence of Al-Shabaab, one of the biggest challenges now facing the country is finding a way to bring its many refugees home. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said there were 1.1 million Somali refugees living in neighboring countries at the end of 2012, making this the second highest number of refugees in the world after Afghanistan. Ever since Somalia entered a downhill spiral in 1993, Somali refugees have fled to all of the countries in the Horn of Africa. Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti currently host more than 60 percent of them, according to the UNHCR. But the United States, UK, Italy, France, Australia, South Africa and other countries of the world are also home to Somalis who escaped the war.

On May 3, 2013, regional leaders met at an extra-ordinary summit in Addis Ababa, under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. They drafted a 15-point communiqué on Somalia. While the eight-member bloc was full of praise for the progress made by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, they were categorical on the refugee issue.

The leaders called for the construction of an inclusive framework that would build "a sustainable and gradual return program for refugees with the active participation of the Somalis in the diaspora." The dispatch added that the UNHCR would guide the program and see that "the international community would develop modalities for safe and orderly return and resettlement of Somali refugees with definite timelines."

For Kenya, which is hosting about 600,000 Somalis (400,000 of them are in refugee camps according to UNHCR), this proposal was especially good news. Ever since Al-Shabaab was driven out of most parts of central and southern Somalia, Kenyan authorities have felt that it is time for refugees to head back home.

"For refugees to return home is very important because they can help rebuild their country," said Ken Vitisia, Director of the Great Lakes Region office at Kenya's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Although UNHCR and the region at large agree that hosting refugees has been a burden, the UN agency feels that the plan governing the return home of refugees should allow for a gradual transition. UNHCR boss Antonio Guterres toured Kenya and Ethiopia in July 2013 and proposed a phased approach to the issue.  

"If we do these returns properly, they can be a positive factor for development in Somalia," he told reporters in Nairobi.

 "On the other hand, if huge numbers of refugees go home prematurely, they could contribute to destabilization," said Guterres.

UNHCR has suggested that a special commission be in place to guide the project, but the stakeholders have not set a time to form one.

The view of UNHCR is supported by various relief agencies supporting refugees in the Horn. Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF) admitted that the camps may be full, but argued that sending people back would create further problems because systems in Somalia there were not yet operational.

"Humanitarian agencies continue to have problems reaching most of the areas inside Somalia and, as a result of insecurity, service delivery is still very poor. Local administrations are not in place in many instances," said Elena Vellila, the head of MSF Mission in Kenya. The agency runs a 300-bed hospital at Dadaab and Vellila, and feels that there should first be a focus on stabilizing the political atmosphere in Somalia before plans are made to return refugees.

Diaspora pillar

Experts say that despite presenting challenges, returning refugees will form the core of country's future.

"A country emerging from turmoil needs the contribution of its diaspora to grow stronger. It needs their labor and their money to boost the economy, and, of course, their skills," said Joakim Guntel, a consultant on Horn of Africa issues.

"They form the initial pillar on which the fledgling Somalia will rely to withstand the winds of future turmoil, be they political or economic," she said.

According to a June 2013 report by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Somalia has largely remained economically active, even during the war, because of remittances sent by the diaspora.

The report, titled Family Ties: Remittances and Livelihoods Support in Puntland and Somaliland, estimates that at least $1.2 billion are sent home every year by Somalis abroad, despite bureaucratic obstacles, with about half of the population receiving these remittances. This money is used to pay school fees, start investments and meet the basic needs of families in Somalia, the FAO said. In essence, remittances are sustaining Somalia's economy.

The FAO reported that, since 2010, diaspora remittances have exceeded what Somalia receives annually in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) - $102 million - and international aid - $834 million.

This means that the country's diaspora is invaluable to its growth. However, some experts argue that the wealth of those returning home, both in skills and financial asset, and the contribution they will be able to make to the good of the country and its future, must be further examined.

"Somalia will benefit from their return depending on where they will be coming from. If they are in camps, they will just be eager people keen on getting back to normal life. They may not be of much help to the country," said Ochieng' Adala, a former Kenyan envoy to the UN.

"The Somali diaspora is scattered all over the world, and they should be encouraged to go back. The challenge will be to ensure that they help the economy, rather than redirect their proceeds to Al-Shabaab or other militias," he said.

Ambassador Adala, who also served as envoy to Zambia and Mozambique, after it emerged from its own turmoil, thinks the situation in Somalia is still fluid, but adds that it has a brighter future.

"War normally strains a country's systems, but with the support of its own nationals as well as the international community, it will catch up. Look at Rwanda, for example. Somalis only need to read from the same script," said Adala.








Africa Report
Embattled Newest Nation
-Climate Relief
-Land Grab Woes
-Bring on the Rain
-Depending on a Diaspora
China-Africa New Strategic Partnership and Friendship for Development and Transformation
-BRICS Means Business
-Cameroon Aims for More Chinese Visitors
-Greening International Relations
-Switch Off Your Lights, Help The Planet
Nation in Focus
-November 2010
-September 2010
-June 2010
-May 2010
News Roundup
-September 2013
-August 2013
-July 2013
-June 2013
-May 2013





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